Does meme count as culture?

The ubiquitous internet meme comes in many forms — from iterations on top of iterations of a viral video to a random picture of a cute animals with an ironic white Impact caption. They also seem to proliferate like one of those animals with an ironic white Impact caption, if you know what I mean.

The internet meme often gets a bad rap. It gets called a waste of time, a waste of energy, and a waste of brain bandwidth.. really just more noise in an already cacophonous environment. But is this really true? Is meme only a waste of time or is there significantly more to the humble internet meme?

A case for meme

“Culture” is defined as “the act of developing the intellectual and moral faculties, especially by education.” Culture varies significantly across the world, just as significantly as the moral and intellectual faculties between people vary, and grows strong in places that foster education between people of like-mind and similar values.

By this definition, the internet is becoming its own global culture. There are (of course) differences, but in essence, the internet is allowing people to come together and develop their intellectual (consider communities like Quora, topic-based communities, etc) and moral (consider the group Anonymous or the internationally-adopted web blackout in protest of the US SOPA bill) faculties. It is difficult to associate any major internet movement with a particular people or existing unique culture. The internet and the spread of cultural artifacts through its many channels are as diverse as all the people in the world — and through this diversity there is unity forming around similar values (freedom, democracy and expression).

Meme, by definition, is “an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.” Meme is not necessarily specific to the internet — it simply became a household name through the Cheezburger Network. We could define many important cultural evolutions as “meme,” such as 3D imaging in modern film or technology in the classroom. These — now commonplace —  ideas have spread from person to person inside of a unique culture.

I propose that internet meme is the currency of a blooming global culture. Internet meme can, and does, educate morality (consider the macings at UC Davis and the massive adoption that meme saw) as well as intellectual pursuits (consider the Advice Mallard), and while there is a ton of crap in the world of internet meme, the same can be said for most more traditionally accepted cultural mediums (has anyone seen this Nic Cage film?!).

The internet is irrevocably changing the way we interact with traditional media that define what “culture” is for us. What is art in this new environment? Do you have to be a classically-trained musician to create culturally-significant music?  How is cinema, food, and literature changing due to advances in internet technology? What ultimately count as legitimate “cultural” artifacts and what doesn’t?

While the internet is creating its own culture in cyber space, there is invariably spill over to the real world. People reference internet memes in casual conversation around dinner, share meme experiences with friends and loved ones, and use meme as illustrations of concepts among their peers. They use meme to make points in arguments, to create conversations, to shame, to uplift, and to showcase triumphs and defeats. This, to me, bears greater cultural significance than simple entertainment on the interwebs™. Internet meme is most assuredly spreading ideas, behaviors, and styles between people — locally and virtually.

What do you think? Does meme count as culture in the greater global evolution of human culture? Let’s hear some opinions!

Clair Byrd is the Director of Content and Community for Scoop.it. For musings on social tech, writing, and cute owl pictures, follow her on Twitter (@theclairbyrd).

  • Pamela D Lloyd

    Absolutely, meme’s count as culture!

  • http://twitter.com/FotoArteComum Foto Arte Comum

    Yeah, meme’s are culture in it’s most transient and interchangeable form.

  • http://twitter.com/JillMcSweeney Jill McSweeney

    Most certainly! Grumpy cat is the perfect icon for this generation!

  • Peter Isackson

    I don’t think many of the specialists of culture (anthropoligists, sociologists, intercultural analysts) would agree with the definition proposed. The elevator speech brief definition would be more like this: culture is the set of shared values and behaviors of a given community. Education is just the icing on the cake: scrape it away and the cake’s still there. Culture is more about perception, reflexes, unconscious value judgements, etc.

    Meme (invented by Richard Dawkns) itself is more metaphor than scientific concept. I haven’t seen two people using it in exactly the same way! But it’s a fun concept. And you could — with the vagueness of today’s internet culutre — say that all culture is built out of memes defined as “ideational things working in the background below the level of awareness”. But unlike genes (the parallel Dawkins hoped to establish) they aren’t hardwired in any way. They could designate shared moral values (which tend to be durable) or ephemeral fads, so they don’t give us anything solid to work with. But, as I say, they’re fun to use.

    I think it’s safe to say the Internet is having a radical effect both on culture (how people share perception and values) and cultures (the specific set of assumptions associated with specific groupings of people).

    As for your question, “Do you have to be a classically-trained musician to create culturally-significant music?”, ask any of the great jazz musicians of the past century. The answers would be fascinating. The relationship between jazz (improvised and shared) and classical (rehearsed and performed) is interesting to explore, as is the relationship between jazz and rock or pop music. And it’s about a lot more than memes!

  • http://www.baldydog.com/ Adam Donkus

    I think Memes in themselves are not, but the content that is shared via them does become part of our culture.

  • Daniel D

    Memes are used as an international language. They present people with familiar situations. We, the young people, find ourselves, friends, and the society we live in, in these sketches, pictures, even comics, to some extend. This makes them so popular, shareable, etc. – you want to show it to your social circle because you know anyone can see him/herself in the situation presented with memes.

  • http://twitter.com/francogug francesco guglielmin

    memes are international and are a most use human representation of our state of humour : they are an evolution of the emoticons !

  • Stefan

    I think you need to go back to the origin of the word meme. It is an idea spread within a culture …… therefore can’t be a culture itself. The word was originally coined by Richard Dawkins. An internet meme is a subset of a meme.

  • Lionel Valdellon

    Sure, they count as part of culture in general. Not the highbrow stuff that hangs in museums but as the dirty cousin hiding in the basement with a unibrow.

    Also, Clair, it’s “let’s HEAR some opinions.” ;-)

  • http://www.ericpomert.com/ Eric Pomert

    I would say yes. Think of it like yogurt. Some bacterial strains produce a tasty culture to some, and not to others. Whether you like that strain or not, once it “takes,” a new culture arises. For better or for worse depends on who’s judging.

  • Paige

    Something as simple as a smile is considered a meme… they are the building blocks of culture and the drivers of its evolution. There’s a reason the name is so similar to gene. Culture evolves at a much higher pace than biology but as genetics carries evolution of biology, “memetics” carries that of culture. The fact that internet memes can be generated so quickly is only a defining character of our technologies and evidence suggesting an increasing pace of cultural evolution.

  • Jazmin Castillo

    Puede de que el meme si cambie la cultura, debido a que no es el algo formara parte de ella, pero bien sabemos que la cultura es cambiante. Cabe la posibilidad de que con el tiempo pase de moda y deje de ser el boom como lo es ahora. Pero a veces, éstos se pueden utilizar como forma de expresión cultural eso depende del uso.

  • venkyiyer58

    Oh yes, meme does count as culture. Does it develop the “intellectual and moral faculties”? Intellectual, possibly. Moral, I don’t know.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1327939940 Carlos Rios

    Definitivamente los memes se han convertido en una cultura creciente principalmente entre los jóvenes, pero incluyendo también a muchos otros usuarios frecuentes de las redes sociales. El hecho de compartir, comentar, disfrutar de un meme, su significado y lo que busca criticar se ha convertido en una costumbre y definitivamente en una cultura que se propaga muy fácilmente por la necesidad de las personas de disfrutar y compartir socialmente.

  • Totan

    Considero que los memes son parte de la cultura del Internet, que ha incrementado en los últimos años principalmente en redes sociales.
    Sin embargo, no los considero como una cultura independiente capaz de cambiar la cultura humana.
    Más bien, son una forma – de las variadas que existen- para criticar (aveces sin fundamento, irracionales u ofensivos) de una manera cómica algún asunto o acontecer de conocimiento general o público especifico, y conocer las opiniones de las demás personas.
    Se expresa lo que se piensa ante determinado tema o acontecer; aunque muchas veces son ideas inútiles que no aportan nada relevante.

  • http://www.facebook.com/JUGJM JonaRas Bless

    Considero que los memes son parte de la cultura del Internet, que ha incrementado en los últimos años principalmente en redes sociales.
    Sin embargo, no los considero como una cultura independiente capaz de cambiar la cultura humana.
    Más bien, son una forma – de las variadas que existen- para criticar (aveces sin fundamento, irracionales u ofensivos) de una manera cómica algún asunto o acontecer de conocimiento general o público especifico, y conocer las opiniones de las demás personas.
    Se expresa lo que se piensa ante determinado tema o acontecer; aunque muchas veces son ideas inútiles que no aportan nada relevante.

  • Deibi Vindas

    Yo pensaria que hasta cierto punto lo meme si puede llegar a cambiar la cultura humana por esta ser tan cambiante y adoptaiva es decir “nos adoptamos facilmente a cambios”, pero en cierta manera no deberia de suceder por que como es posible que algo que simplemente por ser el boom del momento en las redes sociales y muy visto e implementado principalmente por jovenes y uno que otro mayor pero usuario de estas redes cambien la cultura humana hablando de creencias familiares, religiosas y sociales, no deberia de ser asi pero tampoco digo que no sea posible que si ocurra algo ya sea que forme parte de la cultura o que la logre cambiar…..

  • Maximo Arauz

    Existe
    una gran ambigüedad en cuanto a considerar a los memes como cultura se
    refiere ya que por una parte no se podrían considerar como una ya que no
    cumple con las características propias de una cultura, es decir no
    posee: lenguaje, vestimenta, música,
    etc… Al no contener dentro de si ninguna de estos complementos no se
    le puede considerar una cultura, por otro lado se sabe que el concepto
    de cultura ha cambiado de tiempo atrás hacia la actualidad y como se
    menciona en la lectura quizás una cultura no esta regida por como la
    sociedad la ve, tal ves los memes sean una contra-cultura es decir, no
    se adapten a los estándares sociales y establezcan los suyos propios. En
    conclusión en mi opinión los memes más que una nueva cultura quizás
    sean parte de la nuestra siendo así un punto medio entre la interrogante
    planteada…

  • Gabriel Garcia

    Los memes son una parte importante en la cultura “cibernetica” de las redes sociales, ellos no cambian la cultura sino es que son parte de la la nueva cultura, salieron como forma de expresar situaciones graciosas que le pasan a las personas o a nosotros mismos. los memes tienen que ser simplemente de Internet, de ahí no va salir.

  • Oscar Emilio Villalobos

    En muchos casos, es evidentemente que los memes vienen hacer un auge o una forma de controversia en la cultura para muchos de los jóvenes de hoy en día. Además viene siendo por parte del internet que este tipo de implementación para demostrar o comentar alguna idea sobre algo. Puede que con el tiempo se olvide y sea sustituida por alguna otra idea del momento.

  • Alessandro Monge

    From my point of view, and the way de Internet is becoming a big influence in the world wide nation, and how young people have made social networks a huge part of there life (to some, possibly more important than eating), culture may come to change because of the impact the Internet has on people and how they are able to express themselves. Meme`s may not change culture by themselves but they may be part of the process in which the culture of today changes into the culture of tomorrow.

  • Carolina

    Actualmente los memes se han convertido en un parte de la cultura de Internet, ya que se utilizan ya sea para criticar alguna cosa, dar bromas o simplemente como diversión antes distintas situaciones. Esto no quiere decir que sean parte de nuestra cultura en general simplemente son como una moda que se da principalmente en las redes sociales.

  • Gabriel Estrada

    Los memes están enfrentando un auge increíble en Internet, por medio de ellos las personas muestran su intelectualidad creando y desarrollando memes de todo tipo, según su cultura. Por esta razón opino que los memes podrían llegar a ser subculturas, no una cultura global.

  • Jose Asdrubal Gallo Gonzales

    Los memes en los últimos años se han convertido en una forma de expresarse de las personas en el internet, ya que han conseguido cierto auge por su irónica manera de describir la que sucede, siendo este suceso de importancia o un simple chiste entre conocidos.

  • Dave Phillipson

    Answering this question could cause it to become a meme.

  • earnonline786

    yes my answers is yes